Jon Baldwin and Brett Gregory

Jon Baldwin and Brett Gregory

Telling the same story over and over: Hollywood remakes of British films
Monday, 20 May 2024 19:01

Telling the same story over and over: Hollywood remakes of British films

Published in Films

Jon Baldwin and Brett Gregory review ‘Hollywood Remakes of Iconic British Films: Class, Gender and Stardom’, by Agnieszka Rasmus, (Edinburgh University Press, 2024)

‘I can always take it to the Americans. They're people who recognize young talent, give it a chance, they are.’- Charlie Croker, The Italian Job (1969)

Agnieszka Rasmus makes a excellent contribution to the study of the Hollywood remake with the first book-length study devoted to a select cycle of Hollywood remakes of British cinema classics: Alfie (Gilbert, 1966; Shyer, 2004), Bedazzled (Donen, 1967; Ramis, 2000), The Italian Job (Collinson, 1969; Gray, 2003), Get Carter (Hodges, 1971; Kay, 2000) and The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973; LaBute, 2006).

Bedazzled 1967    Bedazzled 2000

As is common knowledge, the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ insatiably hunts down, consumes and reconstitutes ideas and narratives from all over the place, and the remaking of films from the past, and from other countries, first began in the US with Siegmund Lubin’s ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1904.

The process offers the chance to capitalise on the familiarity and riches of the original production and, to varying degrees of success, an opportunity to update characters, dialogue, iconography and themes etc. for a contemporary younger audience.

In the 21st century new screen technologies, particularly developments in special effects, CGI and AI, have also prompted a succession of remakes that are strategically marketed as ‘enhanced’. For example, the most economically prosperous remake of all time is the photorealistic version of The Lion King (Favreau, 2019), which generated $1,646,106,779 worldwide.

In ‘Hollywood Remakes of Iconic British Films: Class, Gender and Stardom’, the turn-of-the-century remakes that Rasmus explores were nearly all originally produced during London’s ‘Swinging Sixties’. This cycle of movies, which also included Darling (Schlesinger, 1965), The Knack . . . and How to Get It (Lester, 1965), and Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966), replaced the sober realism and earnest social commentary of British New Wave films such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962) and This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963). Due to their hedonistic indulgence in sex and swagger, glamour and glitter, ambition and amorality, they were popular with mainstream audiences, but not particularly with the critics.

In turn, most of their remakes were produced amidst the ideologically-assembled afterglow of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s: Tony Blair’s New Labour, Britpop’s Oasis versus Blur, Euro ’96, Hugh Grant, Austin Powers, The Spice Girls, Alexander McQueen’s fashion, Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists etc. For instance, the cover of Vanity Fair's March 1997 edition featured Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit lying scantily clad on a Union Jack bedspread with the headline ‘London Swings Again!’ Thus, it can be seen, in line with the continuous capitalist campaign to profit from mediated reproduction, rather than originality, there is nothing as brand new as nostalgia.

Interestingly, these remakes were also released when DVDs were becoming a commodified alternative to VHS and, in turn, Web 2.0 had hit the market. User-generated content, connectivity and collaboration created huge communities of cinephiles – similar to today’s Letterboxd – and they freely voiced their opinions, exchanging knowledge and information. Moreover, the Hollywood remakes of Alfie et al encouraged the re-release of the original productions in DVD format and, as a consequence, both versions fed off each other in a symbiotic, compare and contrast, retail relationship which, for a short time, distracted the contemporary media marketplace.

Indeed, ‘Cool Britannia’ heralded a ‘New Lad’ subculture which attempted to ‘ironically’ portray old-school masculinity in direct contrast with the more sexually ambivalent ‘New Man’ of the 1980s. The magazines of the time – Loaded, FHM and Maxim – objectified women and celebrated male cinematic ‘rogues’ such as Gary Oldman and Oliver Reed, and posters of Michael Caine’s psychopathic London gangster from Get Carter began to adorn young men’s bedrooms and their online profiles; his hyper-masculinity, blokey nature, and overt sexism both steering and salving their emerging machismo.

Get Carter 1971     Get Carter 2000

In the Hollywood remakes of The Italian Job and Get Carter Mark Wahlberg and Sylvester Stallone re-appropriate Michael Caine’s working-class gangsters respectively. As a consequence, the movies morph into star vehicles, and the narrative and genre are shifted to accommodate this predictable Hollywood trope. That is, both remakes endorse heteronormative relations, and any subversive elements present in the originals are ushered into the background.

While Sylvester Stallone’s ‘nice guy’ portrayal in Get Carter can be seen to be a failed attempt to reboot his declining screen image by way of his spectacular physique – The New York Times deemed the film to be ‘pointless’ – it could be argued that the remake of The Italian Job is more interesting. This is mainly because it presents a more balanced approach to gender representation than the inherent misogyny of its 1960s progenitor. This is achieved by activating and elevating the role of its female lead, Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron), in reaction to the original passive portrayal of Lorna (Maggie Blye) as a ‘dolly bird’.

So Stella is a professional safecracker whose skills are essential for the narrative’s heist and, as a result, she wins over the all-male criminal gang. As Rasmus qualifies however, ‘Stella is a progressive young woman, yet she remains visually objectified’ and, ultimately, the plot is reduced to a heteronormative action/love story. For instance, the classic cliff-hanger which concludes the original – ‘Hang on a minute, lads. I've got a great idea…’ – is made redundant by Wahlberg and Theron travelling to Venice with their loot to ‘live happily ever after’.

In turn, Wahlberg’s Charlie Croker offers a version of Hollywood masculinity that is somewhat unthreatening since he uses his brains, rather than his muscles, to solve problems. Moreover, his democratic leadership stands in contrast to the original’s class divisions; a corporate gangster culture with an officious and bureaucratic hierarchy is replaced with scenes and themes of bonhomie and camaraderie.

Rasmus reminds us that remakes are like any other form of adaptation in that they involve an acknowledged transposition of a recognisable work and are both a creative and interpretive act of appropriation. Like the genre film, remakes produce pleasure in terms of repetition with variation, recognition, remembrance, and change. Therefore, they welcome comparison as they implicitly and explicitly acknowledge their predecessors. If sequels and prequels are about ‘never wanting a story to end’, then remakes are about ‘wanting to retell the same story over and over in different ways.’

The Wicker Man 1973    The Wicker Man 2006

Each chapter in the book considers each of the five pairs of films by recalling their production, distribution, exhibition, and reception. Significantly, it identifies that such films can provide, inadvertently or not, a commentary on wider socio-cultural changes and developments as they illuminate anxieties at the heart of their original. For example, aristocracy and authority figures no longer dominate British cinema like they did in the 1960s and 1970s, and are now frequently mocked and undermined instead.

Overall, Rasmus’ book could be far more successful than the cycle of remakes she focuses upon. Different cultures, socio-historical periods, audience expectations, genre conventions, directorial styles, aesthetic orientations, identity politics, and industry practices are interrogated appropriately, and it is well worth a read as a result.

Culture Creation versus Commodity Creation: Labour's Plans for the Arts, Culture and Creativity
Monday, 06 May 2024 11:54

Culture Creation versus Commodity Creation: Labour's Plans for the Arts, Culture and Creativity

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jon Baldwin and Brett Gregory analyse Labour’s Plan for the Arts, Culture and Creative Industries

On the 13th March 2024 Bracknell News reported that Sir Keir Starmer will use a speech to commit to ensuring the arts are ‘for everyone, everywhere’ under a future Labour government. This was an event which launched the document ‘Creating Growth: Labour’s Plan for the Arts, Culture and Creative Industries’ at the Labour Creatives Conference.

The glossy brochure reads like a description of a story rather than a story itself. Like the lost art of political pamphleteering, it makes promises it needn’t keep and promises it needn’t promise. Labour will do this and that for the benefit of the arts, culture and creative industries; it will put money here, support those there, scaffold this group, secure that role, lift up them, open opportunity and, not only that, it will be green, sustainable and inclusive. Aren’t the arts brilliant! Isn’t culture great! Look how much money they all make!

And what can be said of the hipster Islington interns who produced this neoliberalist napkin during their smashed-avocado and decaf latte tea-break? A lugubrious legion of lickspittles paying lip service to political puffery, bringing to mind a quote from Jorge Luis Borges: ‘They seek neither truth nor likelihood; they seek astonishment. They think metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy.’

Any commitment to the arts is to be welcomed. We live in an age of philistines and boors. The arts, culture and creativity inside and outside of our education system has been downgraded and devalued by the Tories. Creative subjects have been squeezed out of the curriculum by ministers, and their lackeys have fired phoney shots from their cottage industry ‘culture war’ which, in truth, is a proxy for an actual class war. Cultural Studies text books may soon have blank pages where the history of Marxism used to be written.

Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 A Charter for the Arts was only 7 pages long. ‘Creating Growth’ is 19 pages long. The word ‘socialist’ appears three times in Corbyn’s document and the word ‘economy’ appears twice. In Starmer’s magnum opus ‘economy’ features ad nauseam, alongside ‘business’, with ‘socialist’ not featuring once.

BG Thangam Debbonaire

The foreword for Starmer’s ‘Creative Growth’ is written by Thangam Debbonaire. Corbyn’s ‘Charter for the Arts’ opens with ‘The Socialist Vision of Jennie Lee.’ Debbonaire was educated at two private schools, Bradford Girls' Grammar School and Chetham's School of Music, and then she went off to Oxford. Jennie Lee was educated at the state school, Beath High, and was the daughter of a miner. Lee's maiden speech at Westminster was an attack on the budget of Winston Churchill, accusing him of ‘corruption and incompetence.'

Debbonaire resigned her role of shadow Arts and Culture Minister due to her lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. Lee was instrumental in founding the Open University and principle of open access to higher education for all. Lee’s husband, Nye Bevan, was the founder of universal, free healthcare through the NHS. Debbonaire is a school governor, a trustee of the University of Bristol Students’ Union (UBU), member of the local traffic action group, and co-founder of the House of Commons string quartet ‘The Statutory Instruments’ who perform culture with class - social class.

In her foreword Debbonaire writes that ‘the UK has won the highest number of Nobel prizes for literature and the second highest number of acting Oscars this century.’ Really? Wasn’t V. S. Naipaul (2001) from Trinidad and Tobago, and Doris Lessing (2007) from Iran? Isn’t Kazuo Ishiguro (2017) from Japan, and Abdulrazak Gurnah (2021) from Tanzania? And wasn’t Harold Pinter (2005) fined for refusing national service as a conscientious objector?

Debbonaire also writes that ‘the creative industries as a whole, have enormous economic value to the UK,’ associating arts and culture with the grubbiness of ‘growth potential’ as if they are commodities whose only value is to further the nation’s GDP. It looks like she hasn’t done her homework: here are some quotes about Nobel prizewinners:

V. S. Naipaul: ‘For having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.’

Harold Pinter: ‘Who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms.’

Doris Lessing: ‘That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.’

Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘Who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.’

Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘For his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’

The scrutiny of suppressed histories, of oppression’s closed rooms, and the scepticism of division, the emotional force uncovering illusion, and the compassionate consideration of the refugee, just doesn’t seem to fit in with Labour’s economic understanding of the arts.

Private education rules culture, ok?

As for film award ceremonies, it was reported that, over the last 10 years, 40% of the recipients of the main prizes at the Oscars, Baftas and Mercury went to private school, whereas only about 6% of the population are privately educated. Of course, this is the type of elitism Labour claim they want to change and, indeed, Starmer’s would-be cabinet will almost certainly have the most state educated ministers in post-war history. You have to start somewhere.

In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx outlines a picture of unabated continual commodification ‘when all that men have regarded as inalienable become objects of exchange . . . virtue, love, opinion, science, conscience, etc. — where all at last enter into commerce.’ This genealogy is notable for several reasons: aspects of life which were previously not commodified are now on a linear and seemingly irreversible production line. That is, there is a relentless colonisation of the life-world by commodity relations which leads to ‘universal venality’. This corruption of community bonds causes people to fetishize commodities and become alienated by them, oblivious to their exploitation.

Marx art

The design of Labour’s brochure is quite nice, blocks of red and an easy-on-the eye font, with stock photos trying their hardest not to be stock photos. While the ambition for authenticity is admirable, the conclusion is clear and simple: this political party’s plan for the arts, culture and creative industries in the UK under Keir Starmer is but a plan for further commodification, privatisation and commerce.

There is too much reliance on a nationalist and instrumental approach to culture, for instance, as well as PFI-style funding solutions, i.e. there is too much emphasis on economic growth rather than culture’s intrinsic value. This means subordinating cultural content to a means of legitimising exploitation and oppression through diversion, spectacle, irrelevance and inaccessibility.

There is no reference to tackling class inequalities, for example, by making discrimination on the basis of class unlawful, just like race, sex and disability, as well as introducing a legal duty on public bodies to make tackling class and income inequality a priority.

As a consequence, here are a few of our alternatives proposals for ‘creating culture’ rather than ‘creating commodities’:

Education

  • Working-class history, its artistic and sporting achievements, interests and perspectives, to feature fairly, equally and continually in all arts and humanities curricula and tutorial systems from primary education level upwards, including at private schools which benefit from a charitable status

Culture Industries

  • Fair, equal, continual and transparent inclusion, participation and representation of working-class individuals, their creative works and sporting records with regards to the membership, administration, executive decision-making and funding processes of publicly-funded cultural institutions and their related bodies. Thus, addressing the social, financial, geographical and historical barriers which prevent people from diverse and deprived backgrounds from accessing culture as both practitioners and consumers. Democratise (for example) Arts Council England, BBC, Booker Prize Foundation, British Film Institute, British Institute of Professional Photography, Creative UK, English National Ballet, Football Association, Lawn Tennis Association, National Museum Directors' Council, National Lottery, Opera UK, Premier League Football, Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy of Dance, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Royal Drawing School, Royal Institute of British Architects, Royal Musical Association, Royal Society of Literature, Royal Society of Sculptors, Rugby Football League, UK Interactive Entertainment, UK Music, UK Sport, Wimbledon, etc.

Events

  • Publicly-funded festivals of working-class art, creativity and sporting endeavour to take place in different UK cities each year with affordable ticket prices. Documentary coverage and screenings to be marketed and streamed on BBC television, radio and iPlayer. For example:

Working-Class Culture: Film, Literature,  Sports, Photography etc. 

  • Publicly-funded art galleries, theatres, cinemas etc. to exclusively and actively promote and exhibit contemporary working-class artefacts, events, performances, festivals, productions etc. for at least three months of the year.
  • Working-class artists in residence with their independent exhibitions to held throughout the year, with financial support, in unlisted or vacant council-owned buildings
  • Working-class poetry, short story and/or novel extract readings to take place on BBC radio and BBC iPlayer weekly

Initiatives for cultural democracy

  • Government-led regulation and reformation of the ownership and control of the UK’s mainstream media: newspapers and their websites, magazines and their websites, social media platforms, television and radio etc. In turn, public taxes should be invested in community-based and grassroots media production which directly addresses the concerns, issues and tastes of local people
  • Government-led regulation and reformation of the monopoly of UK football clubs under foreign-ownership which, in turn, alienate and exclude local and regional fans and communities with overpriced ticket and shirt sales etc.

          love music hate capitalism

  • Increased accessibility to musical instruments, drawing, painting and ceramic materials etc. for those on low-incomes and/or from deprived backgrounds. These could be provided via the re-introduction and revitalisation of libraries as publicly-funded culture hubs in local communities
  • Publicly-funded digital hubs to be established in economically disadvantaged areas to provide access to technology, training, and mentorship for aspiring creatives
  • Provision of affordable workspaces and resources for working-class creatives, including production facilities, sporting facilities etc., particularly in deprived areas
  • Development of initiatives and services which promote and achieve mental health and well-being amongst working-class talent within the creative and digital industries
  • Integrated education programs in digital and creative organisations to address and eradicate conscious and unconscious social class bullying, intimidation, humiliation and/or bias in the workplace, in administrative materials, in promotional materials and during work-related social gatherings
  • Expansion of apprenticeship programs in the creative and digital industries with a particular emphasis on recruiting and supporting individuals from low-income working-class backgrounds
  • Establish a program where local councils provide financial support to crowdfunded video games that reach a certain number of backers from their community. Councils can offer grants or low-interest loans to successful crowdfunding campaigns, helping independent creators cover development costs and marketing expenses. In exchange, developers could be required to include elements of local culture, history, or landmarks in their games, promoting tourism and community pride.

Financial Assistance

  • Grants to be made available to working-class individuals and organisations to help to develop digital and creative projects in their community which focus of social issues, diversity, inclusion, motivation and aspiration
  • Twelve month subsidised work-placement schemes (including travel expenses) at regional companies or organisations for low-income arts and sports graduates. For example: film/media, creative writing, music, performance, football, tennis, snooker etc.
  • Tax incentives for creative and digital companies in order for them to demonstrate a commitment to hiring and retaining working-class talent, as well as investing in initiatives that benefit economically disadvantaged communities in their region
  • Low-income and unemployed artists with independently verifiable creative portfolios to be financially-supported by the DWP and DCMS so they are able to continue with their pursuits and endeavours
  • Financial assistance from the DCMS for low-income musical acts wishing to tour post-Brexit Europe and beyond, as well as sporting individuals who need to access training facilities abroad. 
Dear River Thames: The pollution of privatisation under late-stage capitalism
Friday, 12 April 2024 12:36

Dear River Thames: The pollution of privatisation under late-stage capitalism

Published in Cultural Commentary

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

- W.H. Auden, First Things First, 1956

If we regard the British Isles as a body of nations then its rivers and waterways are its veins, its lifeblood. A walk along a riverbank is so much more than a leisure activity. It is a cultural journey, for our senses, our selfhood and our humanity. The water’s unending and unpredictable undulations encouraging and enhancing the temporal flow of our reflections, our memories, our daydreams and our inspirations. However urban we may think we are, however down-to-earth we may think we are, our rivers make romantics, poets and philosophers of us all. It thus behoves us to take the time to understand them, to protect them from the depredations of capitalist economic arrangements. We need to preserve and cherish them, for now and forever, before it is too late.

For some the Oxford and Cambridge annual boat race is the epitome of the Corinthian spirit, raced by scholar-athletes who combine academic rigour with elite physical prowess, watched by adoring crowds on the banks of the Thames and broadcasted to millions. For others it is an antiquated folk ritual for the wealthy and privileged to congratulate themselves. It is not an example of meritocracy but rather a monopoly where the same two teams play each other every year in the final. Inclusive it is not, it’s a public school-dominated pursuit with just one black participant in almost its two-hundred-year history.

The Filth and The Fury The Daily Record March 2023

Nonetheless the tradition holds that the winning crew throw their cox into the river in celebration of their triumph. This year the custom was abandoned. Why? To put it bluntly, there was shit in the River Thames. The privatised Thames Water has overseen mismanagement of sewage, discharging billions of litres of untreated sewage into the river. This meant there were high levels of Escherichia coli in the river. Losing Oxford captain Leonard Jenkins revealed that he and several crewmates had been plagued by an E. coli-related illness and said, ‘it would be a lot nicer if there wasn't as much poo in the water.’

A week later, on 4th April, the London Evening Standard carried on its front page an emoji of a poo, crying, with the logo of Thames Water. The title reads ‘London’s great stink’ and the subheading ‘Sewage flowed into capital's rivers for almost 10,000 hours last year.’

The title deliberately echoes what the press at the time called the Great Stink of London in 1858. Back then hot weather intensified the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent on the banks of the River Thames. As the heat increased, centuries of waste began to ferment, people got ill and thousands died. The smell hit the recently rebuilt Houses of Parliament, and the politicians finally acted with plans for a new sewage system to be built with the gusto typical of the era. But the resonance is clear, our current treatment of water and sewage has taken us back to the reign of Queen Victoria, as well to the river analyses and proto eco-criticism of Friedrich Engels.

Child labour, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth: the mechanics of capitalism

The Engels family wealth can be traced to Friedrich’s grandfather who moved to Wuppertal, now the north Rhineland of Germany. This was due to the lime-free rivers and tributary of the river Rhine. This promised and delivered riches. Extracting elements from the river proved useful to bleach linen yarn, and later to power water mills. But the Wuppertal that Engels is later born into is not the idyllic high valleys, green fields, vibrant forests with clear fast-running streams it once was. Due to the extraction and subsequent pollution of the river, surrounding nature, and the industry in the area – and prefiguring what he will later find in Manchester – there is overcrowding, child labour, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth. In his 1839 Letter from Wuppertal, Engels opens with a discussion of the river:

The purple waves of the narrow river flow sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly between smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching-yards. [It has a] bright red colour…[due] simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red…[T]he muddy Wupper flows slowly by and, compared with the Rhine just left behind, its miserable appearance is very disappointing.

Young Engels reacts against this and rebels against his wealthy mill owning father’s business and its social and environmental implications. He is aroused by developments in German philosophy (Hegel), French politics (the Revolution), and English Romantic poetry. Engels' father becomes concerned about his son’s poetic sensibility, revolutionary thoughts, and atheism, and wants to move him from such unseemly influences. How best to neuter a wistful, intellectual, young radical Romantic poet? Send him away to Manchester to become a middle manager of the family textile business. Have him learn the numbing and nauseating miseries of business. That is, of linen and cotton spinning and weaving, bleaching and dyeing, stocktaking, audit and accounting. In Manchester Engels will reluctantly learn the ins and outs of world trade, currency deals, import duties, the division of labour, pricing-costs-profit, the extraction of surplus value from the worker, and all the mechanics of capitalism. This will, however, be put to good use in the critique of such a system.

The Manchester Engels is sent to is the most advanced site of industrialisation in the world. The damp, wet climate, with rivers of soft water, are ideal for treating cotton and washing cloth. The first canal in Britain was in Manchester, and the first inter-city railway in the world is between Manchester and the port of Liverpool. This transport system links to the colonies, and brings in coal, cotton from the plantations, aids the formulation of manufactories, and eases bulk imports and exports. The exponential growth of the cotton industry sees Manchester referred to as Cottonopolis.

Manchester is the first manufacturing city of the world, and the scene of the starkest social divides and sanitary horrors Europe had to offer. Engels is compelled to write The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1845). This is a celebrated polemic, a critical analysis of relentless capitalism, and the unvarnished horrors of industrialisation and urbanisation. It mixes history and statistics, political philosophy, medical records, government documents, court reports, newspaper articles, and Engels' own eyewitness accounts, accompanied by the unsung heroine, Mary Burns.

The Manchester here stinks, is noisy, oppressive, full of grime and human deprivation and horror. There are ‘foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement’, ‘cattle-sheds for human beings’, pigs share stiles with children, there are slum tenements, crushed limbs, misshapen spines, disease and infirmity, and ultimately retreat to the two comforts no one can take from you: drunk stupors and sexual relief. This is a working class with hardly any political rights. Engels, like any decent journalist, wanted to speak truth to power about these conditions.

The Punch Magazine 1855

Punch magazine, 1855

The book often reads as Dickensian or Victorian gothic horror, and here is an extract with concern for the river apparent:

The view from this bridge … is characteristic for the whole district. At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which it deposits on the shallower right bank. In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream. But besides this, the stream itself is checked every few paces by high weirs, behind which slime and refuse accumulate and rot in thick masses. Above the bridge are tanneries, bone mills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies. It may be easily imagined, therefore, what sort of residue the stream deposits. Below the bridge you look upon the piles of debris, the refuse, filth, and offal from the courts on the steep left bank…

Engels writes in The Conditions of the Working Class in England, that ‘I accuse the English bourgeois before the entire world of murder, robbery and other crimes on a massive scale.’ These accusations stand the test of time. Despite advances in chemical treatment, engineering, sewage systems, technology, decline of polluting industrialisation, and so on, our rivers are not in a dissimilar state to the ones noted by Engels. The wealthy and privileged crew of a boat cannot even frolic in the river, and newspaper headlines recall Victorian conditions. What went wrong? In essence, the answer might be the turning away from a minimal form of the socialism Engels promoted and instead the turn to privatisation.

For much of the 20th century, water in England and Wales was provisioned publicly in an era of the Keynesian welfare state. The capital costs and initial infrastructure was met by the State. The population was supplied with universal access to water. However, under the rundown (underfunding and then selloff) of state assets by Thatcher within the ethos of neoliberalism, it was deemed that water should now be governed by the 'free market'. The 1989 Water Act privatised water, selling off public assets to private water and wastewater firms for £7.6 billion. At the time the UK government took on the sector’s entire £4.9billion in debts and gave the new private corporations £1.5bn of public funds. The marketing campaign to sell shares was ‘You could be an H2Owner’ – to the sound of Handel’s Water Music. A basic human right, held in common by all, provided on the basis of social equity, became a private commodity.

What has water privatisation achieved? For Conservative peer, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, ‘Private water and wastewater companies have enabled unprecedented spending and cleaning our beaches and rivers to reach record quality levels.’ For others, the privatised water system is leaking sewage, water, and money. Privatisation was meant to result in cheaper costs – yet water bills rose by 40 per cent in real terms (National Audit Office).

Sewage Map The Rivers Trust 2022

Sewage map, 2022

Privatisation was meant to unlock more investment – yet less was invested in 2018 than in 1990. Privatisation was meant to improve the services – yet despite inept regulation, fines for non-compliance with drinking water, quality standards have exceeded £1.5 million over the last five years, and we lose enough water for 20 million people to leaks every day. Water companies find it more profitable to pay relatively small fines than avoid sewage dumping. Austerity-led cuts to the government’s Environment Agency have seen monitoring levels fall, leading to the necessity of the largest citizen science water testing project ever to take place in the UK. It found that 83% of English rivers contain evidence of high pollution caused by sewage and agricultural waste, aquatic life struggles to survive in such conditions.

Since 2010, shareholders have enjoyed dividends upwards of £13.5 billion - money which could have improved water systems, addressed environmental concerns, or served the State. In this sense there has been a shift of wealth from public hands into private hands. Far from Thatcher’s vision of a ‘shareholder democracy,’ current shareholders, often registered in countries like the Channel Islands to pay lower tax, include four major pension funds and four overseas investment funds which between them hold over 90% of the company's shares.

The cost of maintaining and improving water and sewer infrastructure has been paid for by an increase in debt, which has risen from almost zero at the time of privatisation to nearly £40bn in 2016. Having siphoned off as much profit as possible, shareholders are reluctant to pay their debts and now the suggestion is that state owned banks of China will bail out Thames Water. You couldn’t make it up! Water, once state owned in England, gets run down and sold off, it gets exploited, and debt increases while shareholders receive dividends. Shareholders don’t want to pay off the debt, so it is sold to an overseas state. The Conservative government do not like state ownership of utilities, unless it is an overseas state it seems.

A class war

Consumers are urged not to waste water, not to use hosepipes, to use a shower instead of bath, to not flush at certain items, to move away from possible flood areas and so on. That is, consumers are called upon to act in the public interest while the private equity owners operate in the interests of shareholders. This is the trick of diverting attention from production and water companies and on to consumption and individual behaviour. ‘It’s your fault – you left the tap dripping all night.’ Privatisation can be seen for what it really is: a transfer of economic power from the public purse to the private pocket, an associated attack on unions, a break-up of the state, an ideological mission of neoliberalism and, therefore, what we called in the old days – a class war.

What is happening with Thames Water is indicative of what is happening more broadly around the country’s rivers, beaches, woodlands, environment and so forth. And indicative of what is happening on a wider scale when capital exploits the planet and exploits cultural activities. Lake Windermere suffers illegal dumps of sewage and Lough Neagh is described as a toilet without a flush. We are due to run short of water in 20 years time, and added to this is the climate crisis and various tipping points. Shareholders' concern is for short term gain, there is no incentive, and they cannot be relied upon to organise the long term projects that are required to address the incoming environmental issues.

What’s worse is that under Brexit, ministers are planning to diverge from the EU’s water framework directive which sets pollution standards for European waterways. This further weakens the already impotent regulation around water quality. England is the only country to have fully privatised its water and sewerage system. European cities such as Paris and Berlin have re-nationalised water and sewer systems as outsourcing contracts come to an end. What do we see in England is a public asset ruined by private extraction. What do we need? Re-nationalisation. A return of water (and other utilities) back to the commons and then further collectivisation. After all, who doesn’t want to see an Oxbridge student tossed into the river?

This country’s rivers and waterways historically, spiritually and naturally transcend the short-term, self-serving, self-importance of economic and political enterprise. They are earthly phenomena for the cultural activities of enjoyment and escape, conviviality and community, perspective and peace. They are venues of vitality where picnics are prepared, personal decisions are pronounced and marriages are proposed.

Millions of people would prefer such life-affirming human happenings to occur in surroundings that are fresh, flowing and crystal clear rather than amidst the corpse-like clutter and contagion of late-stage capitalism.

Jon Baldwin is Senior Lecturer in Film and Digital Media at London Metropolitan University. He recently edited a film/television special edition of the Journal of Class and Culture. Brett Gregory is an Associate Editor for Culture Matters, a reviewer, interviewer and filmmaker based in Manchester.